Washington (CNN) — President Barack Obama challenged Congress to join him in taking on “our generation’s task” to ignite the growth of a “rising, thriving middle class,” using the first State of the Union speech of his second term to prod Republicans to compromise on the major challenges facing the nation.
“It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country — the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love,” Obama said Tuesday night, sounding familiar themes from his re-election campaign last year.
The president emphasized economic growth and job creation, and insisted that his proposals would not increase the nation’s federal deficit.
He also made an emotional plea for Congress to hold votes on controversial proposals for tougher gun laws after the Newtown, Connecticut, shootings in December that killed 20 schoolchildren.
At the same time, Obama called for legislators to work together for the good of the nation, saying Americans “expect us to put the nation’s interests before party.”
“They do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can,” he said. “For they know that America moves forward only when we do so together, and that the responsibility of improving this union remains the task of us all.”
It was his fourth State of the Union address and seventh speech to a joint sitting of Congress, and analysts considered it a crucial moment for setting the tone for the political dialogue after four years of partisan division and congressional dysfunction.
With the government facing deep spending cuts mandated by a previous agreement between Obama and Congress to raise the federal debt ceiling, Obama renewed his call for a comprehensive deficit-reduction plan that includes new tax revenue coupled with spending cuts.
Taking aim at the bitter partisanship of his first term, Obama said “let’s set party interests aside, and work to pass a budget that replaces reckless cuts with smart savings and wise investments in our future.”
“And let’s do it without the brinksmanship that stresses consumers and scares off investors,” he continued to applause, mainly from Democrats. “The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next. We can’t do it. Let’s agree, right here, right now, to keep the people’s government open, and pay our bills on time, and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America.”
In a jab at congressional Republicans who seek to shrink deficits and the size of government through deep spending cuts, saying “deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan.”
However, a hard-line stance by Obama on deficit reduction after forcing Republicans to concede already on tax increases could poison prospects for the comprehensive deal he says he wants, CNN Senior Political Analyst David Gergen noted.
“The window for achieving a grand bargain has been closing rapidly and could slam shut Tuesday night,” Gergen wrote.
After arriving a loud cheers and prolonged applause on a night of political pomp and ceremony, Obama began the speech on a positive note, saying the nation was on sound footing to move forward.